So you wrote your book and then you ran the spell-checking program. Now you’re done! Right?
There’s that laugh I needed.
One popular misconception among writers is that spelling, grammar, punctuation, and all the little language-correctness tidbits aren’t really all that important because surely real professionals can look past inoffensive mistakes and recognize a wonderful story when they see it. Right? Well, no.
I’m not even going to touch the importance of test readers for story, character, and concept purposes right now. I’m going to pick on the nuts and bolts and explain why proofreading is super important. Why should you have a near-perfect manuscript before you even think of trying to submit a book to an agent or publisher?
Because thinking those things aren’t an important part of the writing craft is about as unprofessional as you can get.
If you think correct spelling, usage, punctuation, phrasing, and grammar are afterthoughts a professional can put together for you after the fact, you’re sorely mistaken. Just like an English professor can’t necessarily tell a good story no matter how perfect her language is, you can’t bring a good story to your readers eloquently if some of the basics of language use aren’t there. I’m saying that those pesky tense shifts and word confusions and spelling mistakes actually do get between your story and your reader’s mind, and they hamper your ability to tell a good story just as much as not having a good story to tell would.
If you have difficulty with certain technical aspects of the writing craft, all is not lost. Editors can help you if you let them. But some time back, I had a conversation with a wannabe writer who spilled constant basic mistakes every time she put her fingers on the keyboard, and when I tentatively told her she has some fundamental language lessons to learn before she’ll be taken seriously, she responded indignantly that she did not think such things were important. In her opinion, writing conventions were outdated; those who insist on enforcing such rules were squashing True Art; and she believed the only thing that mattered was whether people could read her writing and get the message.
Poorly constructed sentences do happen to muddle the message more often than not, but let’s not even go there.
This represents a basic misunderstanding of what being a “good writer” is. A good writer is the full package. A good writer brings her manuscript to a state of perfection to the best of her ability, and does not isolate one aspect of the craft that “doesn’t matter” (and presumably should be cleaned up by others). Well, editors are not your literary janitors, and we do not want to clean up after you. Publisher’s editors certainly won’t. You won’t get to a publisher’s editor if you don’t demonstrate the ability to use your language well, and that includes all aspects of it.
A few typos won’t kill you. A consistent tendency to misuse language will. And a belief that no one important thinks it matters will get you laughed out of the building. Or at least out of the slush pile.
If you have a language-related disability, are writing in a language you’re not very fluent in, or just aren’t good at the technical aspects of the craft, please just accept that if you want to bring your words to the masses, you’ll be doing yourself a wonderful favor if you contact an editor, get a friendly proofreader, or have someone transcribe your stories. Your stuff can still get out there even if you have a reason that prevents you from rendering the language yourself. It still needs to be done, even if you need help to do it. Please don’t write it off as an unimportant part of the craft.
If you haven’t tried to make all aspects of your manuscript perfect, you’re suggesting that polishing your book is not your job. If an agent or publisher is going to have to go above and beyond the normal amount of work to get your book ready for the masses, do you really think they’re going to take a chance on you? When it’s already so hard to get a publisher to think you’re worth a shot?
As a long-suffering editor as well as a writer myself, I will now level with you. Most of the people reading this who are also writers have probably been nodding along, acknowledging that of course basic language competence is important. Many of you roll your eyes when you see “their” and “there” get mixed up; you cluck in disapproval when someone uses comma splices, and you’d never dream of making a noun plural using apostrophe + S. But guess what? You probably still need an editor. Because there are a whole mess of mistakes way beyond the basics that I’ve seen in published books—mistakes I’ve seen actual English geeks make (even though they should know better). So I’m going to share those with you right now.
My longish list of pet peeve writing mistakes:
- Using “lead” when you mean “led.” “Lead” is only pronounced to rhyme with “red” when you’re talking about the metal. Don’t use it as a past tense of “lead” (rhymes with “reed”). Maybe “read” being the past tense of “read” is confusing y’all?
- Using “free reign” when you mean “free rein.” I see this CONSTANTLY. Probably because “free reign” makes a bit of sense (like, freedom to rule). But check me if you want. It’s “free rein,” as in, freed from the tethers.
- Using “pour” when you mean “pore.” I see this ALL the time. You don’t “pour over” your science notes. You “pore” over them.
- Using “phased” when you mean “fazed.” I think some people just don’t know that “fazed” exists. A loud blast or disturbing news will faze you, not phase you. Phasing is for going through things. And Star Trek weapons.
- Using “peeked” or “peaked” when you mean “piqued.” Interest is “piqued,” guys. I guess this has gotten popularity because interest peeking out or interest reaching its highest point makes a certain amount of sense. But in this instance, you want “piqued,” meaning “excite or arouse.”
- Using “pre-madonna.” I guess some people think a person of this description is gearing up to become a “madonna,” but isn’t there yet? The phrase is prima donna. Italian for “first lady.” Originated to describe the divas of the stage.
- Using “persay.” Don’t. It’s per se. Another one of those Latin jobs. It means “by itself.”
- Spelling “certainty” as “certainity.” I promise you there’s no “-ity” at the end. It’s just “-ty” after “certain.”
- Using “adieu” when you mean “ado.” “Adieu” means bye-bye in French. “Ado” is the one that means a fuss and a hubbub.
- Using “bonafied” when you mean “bona fide.” I promise you it’s not a compound word. One of those tricky Latin phrases.
- “Callous” vs. “callus.” Another one nobody seems to understand. You’re callous if you’re unfeeling and maybe rude. You have a callus on your finger if you write a lot. If you’ve got barefooted people running around, it’s preferred standard use to say their feet are “callused.” (Some people say this is a debatable one, though, since “calloused” can also apply to body parts that have become insensitive.)
- Using “it’s” as a possessive. People who THINK they know the difference between “its” and “it’s” still screw this up all the time. Think of “its” the same as you think of “his” and “hers.” It’s the same. You wouldn’t write “hi’s” when describing something belonging to “him,” would you?
- Using “baited breath” when you mean “bated breath.” I really hope your breath doesn’t contain bait.
- Using “boldface” or “bold-faced” lie. The original phrase was “barefaced lie,” and now some people say “baldfaced” or “bald-faced lie,” but it’s never “bold.”
- Using “all intensive purposes.” I swear to you. Don’t write this.
- Using “just assume” when you mean “just as soon.” Don’t write this either. You don’t say “I’d just assume stay home and watch movies.” It’s “as soon.”
- Using “beckon call” instead of “beck and call.” It’s not beckon. Really.
- Using “lightening” when you mean “lightning.” “Lightening” is a word, but it means “making lighter.” It doesn’t mean the electricity from the sky.
- Using “throws” instead of “throes.” As in, of passion. It’s “throes.” Throes refer to intense episodes. If there’s throwing involved in your passion, though, that’s your business.
- Using “shoe-in” instead of “shoo-in.” This is not about footwear.
- Misusing “alumni.” This is a PLURAL word. You are an alumnus, or you are an alumna if you want to specify being female for some reason. (Women can also be referred to by “alumnus.”) “Alumni” is more than one alumnus. (There is also “alumnae,” if you want the plural of “alumna.”) Don’t ever say “I’m an alumni!” I will ask you why you’re using singular sentence structure with a plural word, and I will ask you where your other self is, or perhaps assume you are referring to yourself from the same standpoint as those who use the royal “we.”
- Using “nonplussed” to describe a blasé, calm, unruffled attitude. Maybe it’s the “non” prefix, but this word MEANS YOU ARE CONFUSED AND DISTURBED. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Now that this has been so consistently misused, some dictionaries now support the reversal, listing the original definition AND the one that grew out of the mistake, so basically you can’t use this word now unless it’s okay with you that some people will assume you mean the opposite of what you meant.
- Using “teaming” when you mean “teeming.” If the lake is teeming with leeches, I’m not taking my team over there, mmkay?
- “Straight” vs. “strait.” We have straight pins, straight lines, and straight hair. But we have straitjackets, strait-laced (or straitlaced) people, and dire straits. You might see “straight” as a variant with “strait-laced,” actually, but people misusing words pervasively is how “irregardless” got in the damn dictionary, so c’mon.
- Using “hair-brained” when you mean “harebrained.” That saying is supposed to compare your mind to that of a bunny. It is not saying your brain is covered with hair.
- Using “tow the line” instead of “toe the line.” Yep, you toe it—poke it with your toe. You don’t tow it anywhere.
- Using “undo” when you mean “undue.” If you mean “not due,” it’s “undue.” You can’t have “undo alarm.”
- Using “wet” when you mean “whet.” If I have to watch you “wet” your appetite, I’ll leave the room.
- Using “yea” when you mean “yeah.” The word “yea” is pronounced “yay,” and though it means “yes” just like “yeah” means “yes,” it is the opposite of “nay.” It isn’t the spelling of the informal version of “yes.”
- Misusing “let’s” and “lets.” Only use “let’s” when you mean “let us.” Like “Let’s go!” Don’t say “Mom let’s me stay home alone.” Similarly, don’t say “lets do lunch.” You need an apostrophe because you’re really saying “let us do lunch.”
- Using “hold your piece” when you mean “hold your peace.” If you’re silent, you’re preserving peace by not speaking. Holding your piece is something you probably shouldn’t do in polite company.
- Writing “sherbert,” “expresso,” “segway,” or “Haley’s Comet.” The iced treat is “sherbet” (no R), though some people argue that “sherbert” is now a variant. The hot drink is “espresso” (no X). The verb that means “moving on to what follows” is “segue” (yes, Latin again). The comet is “Halley’s” (not one L—dude’s name was Edmond Halley).
- Confusing “loose” and “lose.” Actually this one’s pretty basic, but I still see people who should know better doing it way too often. You didn’t “loose” your wallet.
- Confusing “root” and “route.” Some people (rightly) pronounce these two words the same, but remember that you can root out the truth and root for your team and examine the root of a plant, while you can route your mail or plan your travel route.
Also please keep in mind that if you are writing for audiences in the United States, double-quotes are used for dialogue and any other form of quotation marks. I’ve seen a lot of people using single quotes for their “scare quotes” and whatnot, and it puzzles me. United States English also generally puts commas and periods inside quotes while putting question marks and exclamation marks outside quotes unless they are part of the quoted passage.
These are just the issues I’ve seen most often from GOOD writers but which I consider sloppy in a final product. The basics regarding not messing up your homophones and not including spelling errors should go without saying.
Give your work the best chance it can have by respecting the craft enough to polish your language. Your theoretically amazing story will be that much easier to see if we don’t have to squint through typos and sloppy sentences to get to the gold. Don’t ignore the details. Deliver the whole package.